A drug response team on the front lines of the opioid crisis killing hundreds of Albertans annually turned to Christmas concerts to raise money after provincial funding cuts eliminated two-thirds of its budget.
Three recent shows raised tens of thousands of dollars for Alpha House, the Calgary community group that operates the Downtown Outreach Addictions Partnership, or DOAP, as well as several other harm-reduction programs. Without a regular source of funds, the teams face an uncertain future.
Opioid and methamphetamine abuse has soared across Alberta in recent years, as the drugs have become widely available amid a struggling provincial economy. On average, two Albertans die daily from opioid abuse alone.
Kathy Christiansen, the executive director of Alpha House, said the outpouring of support for the teams demonstrates how important their work is. “The gift out of the difficult news [of the funding cuts] is that we learned we have a lot of support from Calgarians, which is the best support you can have. A lot of artists and musicians have stood up. It’s been kind of sweet,” she said.
The DOAP teams are an ever-present sight in the city’s downtown, with minivans ferrying vulnerable people to shelters and addiction programs. The main team, which provided 21,000 rides last year, lost $800,000 from its $1.2-million budget in the fall.
The funding was cut when Premier Jason Kenney’s government reduced its annual funding to the Calgary Homeless Foundation by almost 8 per cent. The foundation serves as a clearing house to a number of community groups.
After the provincial cut, city councillors approved a $200,000 grant for the main team this year, despite budget shortfalls. Another $125,000 came from the city’s transit agency. The councillors cited reports that the main team saves far more money than it costs by freeing up more expensive police officers and firefighters for other work.
“The DOAP team takes a lot of pressure off those calls that the public services have to respond to. Cutting the funding isn’t really a cost-saving move from our perspective – we view this as a vital service in the community,” Ms. Christiansen said.
City council has asked the police force to consider taking over funding for the main team, according to Councillor Evan Woolley. After scraping together one-off contributions and grants since the main DOAP team was created in 2005, he said it’s time it receives sustainable funding.
“In our increasingly constrained fiscal environment, every organization is working hard to cobble together resources from wherever they can. That’s not a bad thing. But with the DOAP team, we know how valuable it is, it’s a critical tool,” he said.
Studies show the return on investment for every dollar spent on the team is between $7 and $10, according to Mr. Woolley.
The main team is the only outfit that operates around the clock. A number of smaller teams focus on specific issues, including one that seeks out people in need on the public transit system, and have other funding sources.
Two of the smaller teams work around the city’s only supervised drug-use site and help pick up spent needles. They were funded by the province under a deal struck by Mr. Kenney’s NDP predecessor. That funding runs out in March, and Ms. Christiansen said it isn’t clear yet whether the government intends to renew the agreement.
Adam Melnyk, the head of the DOAP teams, said they are in talks with the government about direct funding. “We need more long-term funding. We’ve shown over 14 years that we’re an essential service. This program needs support,” he said.
Alberta’s Minister of Community and Social Services was unavailable for comment, but spokeswoman Kassandra Kitz said in a statement: “The Government is currently in a dialogue with the City of Calgary regarding the DOAP team. We also welcome the DOAP team’s recent efforts to raise money through other avenues.”
Calgary singer Tom Jackson raised more than $40,000 this year for the team through the Huron Carole, his annual charity concert. “I know intimately what the DOPE team does, I do regular shifts with the DOPE team and I can tell you that I love the organization, but more than the organization, I love the clients,” he said.
He said the provincial budget was a call to action for him and other artists to help support the team, which he credits with improving the lives of Calgarians. “They have an opportunity to engage with people who are in crisis, from the time it takes them to pick someone up and bring them to a shelter or get them food. They bring them to a warm place to sleep and get a fresh start tomorrow.”
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